On Sunday, Abdullah Mohammad al Dawood — a prominent Saudi Arabian author known for his best-selling self-help books — tweeted his 97,000 Twitter followers, urging them to sexually harass and molest women working as cashiers in shops — he even went so far as to introduce the hashtag "#harass_female_cashiers."
Naturally there was an outcry following al Dawood's tweets — with many both in Saudi Arabia and abroad chastising him for his statements. To counteract his hashtag, some opponents began to tweet #castrateAbdullahMahmoudalDawood.
However, al Dawood has more supporters than one might think, particularly after such an atrocious statement — many have backed him up, saying that the government should be creating jobs for men rather than the conditions for "consensual debauchery."
Dawood's personal justification for his tweets were that women should stay home to "protect their chastity."
Still, whether or not their chastity is protected, more and more Saudi women are starting to work in non-traditional, mixed-gender environments. It mostly started in 2011 when the Saudi Arabian government introduced social and economic reforms to bolster the non-oil sectors of the Gulf country's oil-rich economy. Even though they face tremendous legal and cultural discrimination, many women have taken these jobs.
Despite these opportunities, it is far more of an uphill battle for most women in Saudi Arabia. Women are still not able to drive, and were only recently finally permitted to bicycle — and under the strict conditions that they were wearing the full abaya, accompanied by a male guardian and the bicycle is strictly used for recreation, as opposed to autonomous transportation. Women are discouraged, and sometimes forbidden from playing sports, in case the exercise rips their hymen, thus destroying their virginity. It is common practice that women need the accompaniment or approval of a male guardian to leave the country, and last year it was reported that women were being electronically monitored by authorities to inform their husbands of their whereabouts.
But there are some victories — in 2011, women were allowed the right to vote and run for office in the upcoming municipal elections in 2015. Perhaps due to the extreme repression in Saudi Arabia, there is a small but strong women's movement, with activists like Manal al-Sharif risking everything to defy the laws for women's right to drive. Recently, Raha Mobarak became the first Saudi woman to scale Mount Everest, with the inspiring words, "It doesn't matter that I am the first, so long it inspires someone else to be the second."
Although al Dawood's sentiments are shockingly common in Saudi Arabia, the overwhelming social media response to his tweets shows that he is a controversial figure, and not indicative of the typical feelings towards women in Saudi Arabia. Instead, when we think of women in Saudi Arabia, we should think about women like Manal al-Sharif and Raha Mobarak, and support them in their triumphs that make al-Dawood's statements seem backwards and obsolete.